I was scrubbing away at my once-white sofa with one of those magic eraser thingies the other day when I suddenly stopped in mid-stroke. Life\’s too short to be doing this, I thought. Who cares if my sofa is white, or just white-ish?
I put away the eraser and sat down to hem some pants. I am an excellent pants hemmer, at least at first. Look at those tiny, barely visible stitches, I say to myself. Sister Dorothy would approve! But it doesn\’t last. By the time I\’m a quarter of the way through the first leg, my stitches grow imperceptibly longer. When I get to leg #2 I can barely restrain my impatience. How much longer is this going to take? Life\’s too short! I bite off the final thread, and see that my stitches would appall Sister Dorothy.
Then there\’s ironing. Life is surely too short for that. I own an iron, and an ironing board, but years go by without my disturbing their repose. This despite the fact that I don\’t really hate ironing, and I wear lots of linen in the summer. But ironing, especially ironing linen, is the ultimate Sisyphean task. There is nothing I like better than a pair of well-ironed linen pants–until, that is, I sit down and when I stand up my legs look like they are encased in those pleated paper lanterns. So I wear my linen wrinkled, and try not to look in the mirror.
When we moved to our cottage after the Grand Downsizing four years ago, I put the few items that had survived the purge–half a dozen pottery salad bowls, some crystal, a silver champagne bucket, and a couple of wooden spoons carved by me– in my glass-fronted china cabinet and closed the door. The other day, I went in to get a brandy snifter and saw that the base had left a dark circle on the shelf. Somehow dust has been getting into the cabinet! I should take everything out, dust the shelves, wipe each glass and dish and spoon, and put them back. Is life too short for that?
Then there\’s the silver, which now that we\’re in our golden years I insist on using every day, but it has to be polished every few months…
Remember that weird Zen saying: \”Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water\”? Whoever first said it did not think that life was too short for these mundane tasks, but that in fact these tasks were life itself. If you are truly enlightened you perform them with all the care and attention of which you are capable, every single time. The saying reminds me of Saint Benedict\’s advice to the monk in charge of washing dishes to treat them with the same reverence as he would the vessels of the altar.
I am not totally lacking in self-awareness, so often when I\’m struggling with some tiny, boring, repetitive task unworthy of my higher talents, I think about the potential satisfaction to be found in chopping wood, carrying water, washing dishes. And sometimes I do manage, for a couple of minutes, to banish thoughts of important stuff and focus on the next stitch or the next dish. But it doesn\’t last, of course, and I shouldn\’t attach to the idea of its lasting.
It\’s not easy, this Zen business, but once you come across it it\’s hard to ignore. What is life not too short for: producing masterpieces, ending wars, saving the earth? How many of us have the talent or the opportunity to do those things? I sure don\’t. But I can try to pay attention to the heft of the ax, the crack of the wood, the coolness of the water as it sloshes out of the pail. And when the last fork has been polished and the last clean dish put away, I will have truly lived another day.